I am back from an extended hiatus caused by a combination of the extended US Holiday Season, the first real vacation I’ve been able to take in quite some time, some medical stuff, and assorted other life things that happen. Also working on a new project, but not quite ready to start boasting about it yet.
There are a number of new full reviews backlogged in the pipeline, but having just finished watching the low-rent Maria Watches Over Us ripoff Strawberry Panic, I wanted to jot down some thoughts. I intend to write a full review of this one (I’m about to embark on a yuri review bender, since it’s an underrepresented genre I like), but in the mean time…
The show is, basically, not very good. It ends up a lot better than it starts, but the path there is kind of a mess, and it’s particularly frustrating because it eventually reveals that there are some good ideas in there, it just completely failed to make something of them until way late in the game.
Watching it goes kind of like this: The first couple episodes are just weird; a mix of frilly Catholic girls’ school cliches, adoring, sparkly-eyed girls staring at uber-girl Shizuma, and weird pseud-sexual things where Shizuma keeps making wildly inappropriate moves to kiss the ditzy protagonist Nagisa. Those are uncomfortable, and they’re supposed to be (sort of), but that then settles down for a while.
From there through episode 6 is boring unless you love silly girls-school stuff and unfunny light comedy. Then episode 7 finally breaks out a secondary romance and a bunch of intra-school drama involving scheming evil lesbian student council members (essentially everybody in the show is at least mildly inclined toward the same gender, but these two are the only ones depicted doing anything seriously physical). And then… nothing really happens for the next several episodes, so it’s back to boring through episode 11.
Episode 12 finally drops a drama bomb—among other things we’re shown that the intent of the romance isn’t all teary-eyed smiles and hand-holding, in no uncertain terms—and makes things interesting from a character standpoint with the main couple. 13 is slow, but adds another big dramatic twist with the secondary set of romances.
And then, in season 2, it again fails to take that momentum anywhere. Now that the drama and stakes are closer to the surface, I at least was paying attention, but in place of boredom is frustration—it drags out and obfuscates what should have been interesting all the way through episode 18; that one at least has some big stuff, but is mostly botched and still drags painfully.
Then comes episode 19, which is solid backstory, and really good. Shockingly good. It’s not spectacular—we’re still dealing with broad-stroked yuri romantic tragedy—but it flows well, is touchingly and convincingly romantic, has a beautifully tragic crescendo, and even does a good job of tying itself back to the present at the very end.
The thing that’s so disappointing about this is that that one episode showed that the series had interesting, or at least entertaining, things to do, it had just completely failed to pull them off for about 15 of the preceding 18 episodes, and in a single episode it got more emotional response than in the entire series combined to that point. (Heck, it’s backstory so you don’t need to know the characters, so you could just watch that single episode standalone and probably enjoy it as its own little tale.) It sure grabbed my interest, though, and got under my skin in the way a good romance (or tragi-romance) should.
The remainder of the series is better, at least, but even then it drags things out so laboriously that it got pretty maddening by the end, not helped any by the fact that it had screwed up so spectacularly before that I had little faith in it pulling off a decent end. Thankfully, the very end, at least, is romantically satisfying, so at least it wasn’t a total waste. It does, however, have one of the most ridiculously contrived plot twists I have ever seen, and in the last couple episodes—it had me shaking my head that it actually went there. In the “No, even this show wouldn’t do something that stupid… wait, yes, it would.”
So you have, roughly, 11 episodes of boredom, two interesting ones, another 5 of frustration, one really good one, and a mix of decent (mostly 25, which follows up on what 13 started and it immediately screwed up), frustration, and embarrassing for the remaining 7.
Here are the three things that struck me most about the show:
One, it does a miserable job of setting things up. The entire first season utterly fails to foreshadow later events or make the actions of the characters make sense, so when the big backstory reveal comes, it doesn’t feel like “Oh, now I understand.”—the good feeling you get when secrets are revealed. It’s more like “Oh, that explains what they were trying, and failing, to do with all those previous plot points.”—just made clear how awkward all the plot progression had been up to then.
Two, the characterization is really, really weak. Characters start to make sense in the second half, but most of their actions seem either random or blatantly plot driven. Lacking any internal logic, there’s nothing to get attached to as a viewer. The contrast is made all too clear by episode 19, which does make sense—you get what’s going on, the characters do things that make sense, and you can get an emotional handle on them. After that things improve somewhat, but even then it’s awkward.
Three, following from two, chemistry. The main couple completely lack chemistry for most of the series. With enough chemistry, you can overlook almost anything, but without it a romance has nothing to stand on (and this series certainly wasn’t substituting plot). Again drawn into the starkest contrast by episode 19, which in just a few minutes establishes powerful, believable chemistry between the same character and her previous love, which makes the whole thing work (heck, it’s so effective you can almost get into her as a character after that). They’re two people who aren’t just smiling at each other, aren’t just kissing, they’re physically hungry for each other. It doesn’t need to tell you how in love they are, because you can feel both affection and passion just from the way they look at each other.
Contrast the actual protagonist, who’s lively and cheerful, but nowhere near enough so that she seems at all believable to catch the eye of Shizuma; together they have no chemistry at all that you can feel until near the end, and even then it’s relatively weak. Given how she’s supposed to be the chosen savior of the despondent lover, you need a lot more than “Generically chipper schoolgirl” to sell that.
Other notes: Production: The art swings wildly between nice and poor, the backgrounds are relatively pretty, the character animation is abysmal with occasional flashes of merely passable, the soundtrack does quite well with just a piano and violin, and all but the lame second end theme are surprisingly good generic darker J-something-pop. The setting is as narrow as it could possibly be; only two bits take place off campus, we never see a single male onscreen, and there are only four adults I could count who ever appear, none of them more than rarely (a teacher we see briefly once in a while and a scary nun who stops showing up after the first few episodes, plus a choir director and a doctor who are in maybe a couple shots and don’t even have lines). That last bit makes the school seem a little Lord of the Flies due to inattentive staff.
Symbolism: It tries to use red symbolically but mixes its metaphors, it clumsily tries to use falling water metaphorically throughout, and sexuality is treated as the villain up until the endgame, where it reverses course abruptly (and thankfully at that—until then the lesbian villains are the only two who seem to have a reasonably normal relationship for late-teens involved with each other). It goes ridiculously overboard to use a school ceremony to elect a representative and her partner as a wedding analogy, which falls apart the second time it comes up if you spend any effort thinking about it.
Content: The message (secondary to the romance) part is about healing from losing loved ones, be it to death or someone taller and better looking than you. The emotional drama is, with few exceptions, about people with a best friend who is a little too attached to you (varying degrees from vaguely romantic to blatantly so) and is sad and/or jealous when you get the hots for someone else, making your romance awkward. When it finally gets to the actual emotional drama it does passably well, it just takes way too long and keeps interspersing it with out-of-character stuff.
Position in yuri spectrum: Soft yuri that goes fairly hard without bringing up the L-word or social reality at all; largely cute, but a few times genuinely romantic, and leaves no room for misinterpretation about the physical nature of the major relationships or the long-term commitment of them.
Anyway, it has enough decent bits here and there, one good episode, and a satisfying enough end, that I don’t feel like watching it was a complete waste, but boy did it take its time getting there. You could probably just watch episodes 1, 12-13, 18-19, and 25-26, and it’d be a decent show.